It's a gross tradition in Hollywood that the major studios use the first weeks of a new movie year as a burial ground for their evil, brain-dead spawn. The trick is to shake out some box-office booty before we catch on. Few will be fooled by such idiot-boy fare as Bio-Dome, with Pauly Shore, and Big Bully, with Tom Arnold, but the real undead of early 1996 may be tougher to spot. An appealing star, an intriguing theme or a flashy TV ad campaign can be a boon for the misbegotten. Beware.
Two if by Sea rolls out as the Trojan horse of the new season's comedies. What else do you call a lovers-on-the-lam romance that comes bearing the gifts of Sandra Bullock and Denis Leary and then sabotages their talents and our expectations for fun by dumbing down in a manner that would make Jim Carrey blush? Leary plays Frank O'Brien, a small-time New York thief who tells his cashier girlfriend, Roz (Bullock), that he will go straight and maybe even marry her — they've been together for seven years — after handing over a painting he has just stolen to a buyer on Cape Cod. While waiting for the sale and dodging the FBI, Frank offers Roz a weekend in a swank beach house he has broken into.
That is the plot, but it is not the story. Two if by Sea has a hidden agenda. Bullock, America's sweetheart after Speed, While You Were Sleeping and The Net, is lovable. Leary is not. An astringent comic actor onstage (No Cure for Cancer) and on MTV, Leary is most often cast as a sinister creep in films. Look at Judgment Night, The Ref, The Sandlot and Demolition Man, his first teaming with Bullock. Maybe Leary could use a little of Bullock's honey to draw the Gump crowd. But there are limits. Two if by Sea, which Leary co-wrote with Mike Armstrong — his college buddy at Emerson — means to give us Leary the likable. Instead we get Leary the lunkhead, a blue-collar slob reformed by the love of a good woman. TV's Bless This House is trying to do the same domesticating thing for Andrew Clay, the artist formerly known as Dice. It's no dice for Leary, whose brand of comic bile, unlike Clay's, operates from a base of fierce intelligence. Dumb does not become him, and I mean that as a compliment.
Director Bill Bennett, a noted Australian documentarian turned purveyor of American doo doo, encourages full-scale mugging. The physical comedy is excruciating. Frank goes fishing and hooks his own ear. He fumes when Roz takes a shine to a neighbor, Evan Marsh (Stephen Dillane), a Brit smoothie with an eye for art and babes. The script asks us to believe that Frank and Roz can cook up a convincingly detailed story to explain their presence as house guests of absent hosts but cannot enter an elegant party without acting like rubes or tripping over the furniture. Frank doesn't know he has stolen a Matisse, and Roz can't pronounce it; she calls the painting a "Mattis." Leary's Jed Clampett routine is particularly grating; as Frank and Roz try on different outfits from the house's ample closets, he still ends up looking like a fashion victim.
The saddest element of Two if by Sea is watching Bullock get dragged down in the drivel. An early on-the-road scene in which Roz and Frank — oblivious to the police cars chasing them — argue about sex, commitment and the pop culture value of Broadway's Cats suggests the smart relationship comedy that might have been if Leary had decided not to play himself and the audience for chumps.